Charlize Theron reflects on the importance of action heroines: 'We can fight and save the world and make a mess'
For EW's Heroes Issue, The Old Guard star looks back on the past, present, and hopeful future of Hollywood heroism.
The Old Guard (2020 Movie)
Charlize Theron is no stranger to playing heroes, whether she's dashing through the desert in Mad Max: Fury Road, dismantling bad guys in Atomic Blonde, or swinging an ancient battle-axe in The Old Guard. The 44-year-old Oscar winner has packed her career with memorable, ass-kicking action roles, so when EW was assembling its Heroes Issue for August, we knew that there was no better choice to talk about Hollywood heroines.
Here, in her own words, Theron reflects on the past, present, and hopeful future of heroism.
I grew up at a time when there weren't [many] shows that were female-oriented. I remember as a young kid, I was an only child. I was lonely. I would play these imaginary games in my backyard, and from the little bit of television we got in South Africa, the shows we got were MacGyver and Knight Rider; just all these dudes. But there was something that changed for me when I was in my early 20s and I saw Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. The Ripley character has always stayed with me in a way that has been incredibly profound, not just for inspiration as far as action films go, but in general. There’s something about that character that has always been a go-to for me when I’ve been in development on movies. Once I saw her be Ripley, it was like the world opened up, and it just felt limitless.
Since then, it’s been slow progress. I think [representation] is changing, and then we all get really excited when there’s a small amount of change, and we all jump up and down, and then we become complacent. We fall back into the same belief that these movies don’t work, that people are not interested, which is a lie. It’s really not based on any factual information. We’re going to have to work a lot harder to create more opportunities.
There’s a part of me that’s like, “Don’t be greedy. You’ve been a part of a lot of them.” But it’s still embarrassing to me that, in almost 30 years, I really don’t have many movies with other women that I can go back and reference. For me, making a movie like Bombshell was a big deal because I don’t get to [star in] movies with a bunch of women, and that’s just so incredibly wrong.
One thing that has changed in the last couple of years is that there’s more access to opportunity through streamers. We have created a bigger world with a bigger demand, so we are creating more opportunities. For decades, we really struggled under the studio system because there was only so much capacity. That’s changing: A lot of our streamers — like Netflix, for instance — they make it a real priority. They want to create more opportunities for women. So there is a part of me that is super excited, and I feel it and I see it and I’m part of it, but I still wish that the majority of my career was more like that. There’s a sadness in that. I’ll keep making films if I can make them with women — with my walking stick, if that’s what I have to do.
What’s so interesting to me is that when you tell these intricate stories with women, you have access to so much complexity that just lends itself to good storytelling. We’ve gone through a social change in the last decade or two where we want to be loud and proud about how this idea of what we think a female warrior or female hero or female action star should look like is not necessarily the truth. There is something to celebrate in the complexities of our faults and our flaws and all of the things that make us interesting.
Having complicated, diverse female heroes elevates the storytelling. It’s given us more places to go to and things to play with. It’s about eliminating these tropes, these ideas that women can only live and breathe in the action genre if they’ve been motivated by some great loss, or their husband had died, or their child was taken. All these trope-y things are slowly disappearing, and you’re seeing women living and breathing in these worlds the way men have for centuries. We don’t have to explain ourselves anymore. We can fight and save the world and make a mess, and we don’t have to have some reason behind it. We can just live and breathe and be.
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